Fully Committed: The Ben Sigmund Story
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Fully Committed is the story of Wellington Phoenix and All Whites footballer Ben Sigmund.
It's not a normal autobiography — it's a story of sport, life and never giving up.
From: Fully Committed: The Ben Sigmund Story, by Ben Sigmund and Jason Pine
Chapter One: One Shot For Glory
The tunnel at Westpac Stadium is always cold. But tonight, it’s absolutely freezing. As we walk out from the dressing room, a big gust of wind rips in. It’s exactly what we wanted.
I look across at the Bahrain players. Never have I seen anyone look so cold. They’re fully rugged up with gloves and beanies on, but they’re still shivering.
Rory Fallon starts to yell.
“These boys aren’t up for it! They’re going down! They’re going down!”
He’s right in their faces, yelling like a madman. I can see fear in their eyes. I’m so pumped up. I start to get goosebumps, and not from the cold. I want to get out there and kill these guys.
It’s been a long day. We stayed at the Copthorne on Oriental Parade. In the morning I met up with my dad, Tony, my sister, Kate, her husband, Shaun, and my mates from Auckland, Wayne and Karen, for a coffee. I couldn’t tell you what we spoke about. I was just so focused on the game.
I think Ricki or Brian Turner told us all to go for a walk and see what was happening in the city. I went on my own because everyone was so in the zone and didn’t really want to talk. I’d only been out a few minutes and James McOnie from The Crowd Goes Wild pulled up in a shitty little car, poked his head out and said, “You don’t want to do an interview, do you?”
I thought, “Yeah, why not?” hoping it might lighten things up for me, because I could feel myself being a bit too serious. He took me over to the playground and made me do all this stupid stuff like swinging on swings while talking about the game. It was cool and made me smile a bit.
I carried on walking and there was white and black all over the place. There were people in All Whites shirts everywhere. The town was buzzing. Then it struck me that I didn’t really want to be seen out and about, so I headed back to the hotel and tried to have an afternoon nap, but I was too pumped up to sleep.
I look at Ivan Vicelich standing calmly in the tunnel. The Godfather. A rock in our defence. So much experience. He’s been my room-mate this week. It’s the luck of the draw who you room with. Maybe management thinks you need a bit of time with the guy you’re going to be playing next to. Before that I’d roomed with Ryan Nelsen and that was pretty cool.
Just before we left the hotel room to head to the game, I looked Ivan in the eye and told him I’d have his back tonight. “We’re going to do this,” he said.
As we drove to the stadium, I looked out to the sea and the boats were rocking around and the wind was blowing like anything, just how we wanted it. It’s why we wanted this game in Wellington. There were people everywhere, all waving and pumped for the game. I must have been in the zone because it’s a blur from then until we walked out of the changing room.
My good mate Tim Brown is up ahead of me in the tunnel. As usual, he’s been a nervous wreck all week. He gets right in the zone before a game. Even when you talk to him, he won’t even register because he’s so focused.
Browny and I roomed together when I arrived at the Phoenix and did so until he retired. When the qualifiers started for the 2010 World Cup, we sat in our hotel room and said, “Let’s go to the World Cup”. People would have laughed, but we decided to give it everything we could to get there. That’s where it started for me and here we are 90 minutes away.
Browny had arranged for former New Zealand cricket captain Stephen Fleming to talk to us the night before the game. He told me Fleming was honoured and sat with him for a couple of hours, asking questions about who ran the team and what the culture was like. He’d really done his homework and got down to the nitty-gritty of how the team ticks.
It was just the 18 players and him, sitting on our chairs in a circle. He talked about how he felt when he was about to walk out to bat for New Zealand and how nervous he got. Then he talked about Sachin Tendulkar and how he always looks so relaxed and might as well be having a cup of tea the way he bats. Fleming told us Tendulkar gets incredibly nervous before he bats and is in absolute fear of failing, but you’d never know it by looking at him.
Then Fleming said, “But that’s alright. It’s alright to be scared. It’s OK to think that you might make a mistake. Don’t worry about it. Just go out there and give it your best.”
I know all the boys got something out of his talk but for me, that was what stood out – it’s OK to be nervous. Because I was more nervous than I’d ever been before a game.
Then Flem asked Ryan how he felt when he was about to lead Blackburn Rovers in an English Premiership game. Ryan became this different bloke and said when he walks out at Old Trafford he feels like the best player in the world. Here’s this guy who’s so down to earth, but when he gets out and he’s marking Wayne Rooney, he feels like he’s going to kick his arse and do everything he possibly can to win the game for his team. Then he talked about the confidence he gives himself when he’s about to play a football game.
Ryan also said something else that really stuck with me. He told us there’ll be times in a game when you don’t want to do something because you’re too tired and you think it’ll be OK because no-one will know. But you’ll know. And if you don’t do it and it costs the team, it’ll haunt you and hurt you for the rest of your life. Don’t be that person.
Then Flem left and we all got round in a huddle and anyone who wanted to have a word could say something. There was some quite emotional stuff going on. I was so blown away by what everyone was saying that I didn’t say a word. I was in the zone and feeling so good about what Stephen and Ryan had said that I didn’t really need to say anything.
It’s weird not having midfielder Simon Elliott in the tunnel with us. He’s come into camp carrying a knock. He did a fitness test during the week and just from the way he was running and sort of dragging his leg, it was obvious there was no way he could play. But I have a lot of faith in Michael McGlinchey. There is so much belief in the squad and in the team about what we are there to do.
When we came together for the week, we weren’t even sure where we were going to train. They told us we had to go out to Endeavour Park in Whitby, about 25km out of the city. Why did we have to go all the way out there? Surely there was something closer? It was a bit messy.
Sometimes the All Whites get together for a game and we have an open training session during the week and only Joe Bloggs and his dog turn up. But we had an open session and there were kids everywhere. We couldn’t move for half an hour because we were signing autographs. That’s when I felt the hype starting to build.
It’s time. We’re led out by the officials and the kids holding the FIFA flags. It’s a sea of white. This is my moment. I’m a really passionate Kiwi and this is my chance to play in front of all the people I’ve played with in the National League and who have been a part of everything I’ve done in my life. It’s my moment to say thanks.
The anthems are a blur, and then we’re away.
My plan is to do what I do best and make sure they know I’m here. Unfortunately I make a clumsy, bad tackle after three minutes and I’m booked. This isn’t good. I’ve still got another 87 minutes to go. I can hear my dad in my head saying, “You idiot! What did you do that for?”
But maybe the yellow card is a good thing. It makes me think about what I’m doing and forces me to control my emotions to make sure I don’t let the boys down by getting another one.
We have a few chances. From one free kick, I nod the ball down and Killy (Chris Killen) swivels and lashes it against the bar. They don’t have any clearcut opportunities.
Ricki’s drilled our formation into us. We’re three at the back – me, Ryan and Ivan – when we’ve got the ball and five at the back when they’ve got it, with Leo and Lochy dropping into fullback roles. We’re crystal clear on what our jobs are.
Late in the first half I receive the ball wide on the right and start dribbling with it. For some reason they’re dropping off me, so I keep running. What the hell am I doing? I’m well into the territory Ricki doesn’t like me being in.
But they’ve backed right off so I keep going and get all the way to the by-line. Someone like Leo would have put in a decent cross, but mine’s not great. It hits the first defender and goes out for a corner. I stay forward for it.
Leo takes all our set pieces. He can deliver a great corner and this one is a beauty. This is it. I’ve got the chance to score. I’m going for it. Then, in a split-second, instinct kicks in. I’m not going to get enough on it. It’s just a bit too high.
I’ve got no time to look around. I just hope there’s someone coming in behind me who can bang it in. Then I feel a big man come over the top of me.
It’s Rory. He climbs over me and the Bahrain defender and nods it in. The stadium explodes.
A thought flashes through my mind and freaks me out. Imagine if I’d gone up for it and got in Rory’s way. Imagine if I’d flicked it on by mistake or done something silly and ruined that chance.
But I haven’t. I didn’t. He’s come over the top of me and put us up 1-0. Rory has never been faster than me, but he outsprints me by a long shot as he sets off to celebrate. I can’t catch him.
Half-time. 1-0. Ryan tells us we’re right in this. We speak about the hard work we’d done in Bahrain to keep it at 0-0. This is why we’re here, but the job’s only half done. I have a banana and a tube of glucose and drink as much fluid as I can. We’re all so pumped up that we just want to get back out there.
Early in the second half, they break down our left-hand side. I drop back with Ryan to make sure I’m in line with the defenders. Their guy cuts into the box, is challenged by Lochy and goes down.
That might be a penalty. Or maybe it’s not. The ref gives it. It’s fair enough. Lochy’s brought him down.
Normally I’d go mental at Lochy, but I feel strangely calm. I believe in us so much. But Leo – who is usually so quiet – is going berserk and really letting Lochy have it. Different emotions have come out, maybe because it means so much to us. Leo’s angry side has come out and I’ve turned into him. Maybe the emotion is so different from anything we’ve ever felt before that we’ve traded personalities.
I tell Leo to calm down. “We’ve got this. If they score, we’re going to go back down and score another one.”
Pasty (Mark Paston) is good at saving penalties and he’s always pretty perceptive at reading which way the guy taking it is going to go. I look at him and see not anger, but focus in his face.
It’s their big centre-back Adnan to take it. Our coaching staff all watched Bahrain taking penalties the night before, so Ricki and BT (Brian Turner) are trying to get a message out to Pasty about which way he goes. For some reason there’s a communication breakdown, but it finally gets to him. Pasty just shrugs. He doesn’t give a toss. He’s going to make up his own mind. Adnan takes it right-footed. Pasty goes to his right and saves it. You champion. You bloody beauty.
It’s not a good penalty, but it’s a great save because it could have easily bounced out for a follow-up. For Pasty to actually hold on to the ball is pretty cool. The noise is louder than when we scored. The whole place is shaking.
They’re getting more and more desperate as the minutes tick away. We have a couple of chances to make it 2-0 as the game opens up, but we can’t finish.
It’s the last minute of the game. My body is screaming because it’s so cold. It’s biting at all my muscles. We get a free kick just inside our own half. Slow it down, boys. Instead we’ve taken it quickly to try and play Woodsy in to go one-on-one, but he’s offside. Free kick for them. It’s the last few seconds so they all pile forward and launch it into our box.
The ball’s on its way. Do I go up for it and risk giving away a penalty for going through the back of an opponent? I fight off my natural instincts to attack the ball and hold my ground. Ryan does the same. Behind us, Pasty’s probably deciding whether to come for it or not. I can’t hear him calling for it, but I can’t actually hear anything. In the end, he stays on his line and the ball is headed gently towards him for an easy catch. Good decision, Pasty.
Everyone’s screaming at the ref to blow for fulltime, but I stay in the zone. Whatever time is left, I’ll deal with it. Keep your focus. Don’t slip up.
Then, it’s over. Pandemonium. I run at a crowd of white shirts and jump on top. Ryan and Ivan run together, ankle-tap each other and fall to the ground laughing. Everyone is going mad. The dream has come true.
We start our lap of honour. I find Browny and we remember our conversation in the hotel room more than two years earlier. It’s pretty special to have it all come true together.
I’m very emotional. Everywhere I look I see different groups of guys I’ve played with or against. I see a Napier group, with Jimmy Cudd and all those guys. Then I see Auckland City, with James Pritchett and Liam Mulrooney in among them. It’s really special for me to see the guys I’ve played with. I hope they’re thinking, “Shit, I’ve played with Ben Sigmund”, and are getting a buzz back from that. It’s just so great to celebrate this with them. I’ve always played for the country and its people.
But I can’t find my family. My wife, Deanna, is here with her parents, Jo and Wayne, her brother, Jason, sister Shelley and her husband, Mark. My mum’s in Korea with work but my dad is here with my granddad, my sister and some more friends. I don’t know where they are. I’m gutted. I go right around the stadium but can’t find them.
I’m out on the field for ages. When I get back to the dressing room, they’ve just cracked open the bubbles and we sing I’ve Got a Feeling by the Black Eyed Peas. As the song says, tonight’s gonna be a good night.
Then the President of the Bahrain FA comes in and it gets quite emotional again. He says, “We lost, but I just wanted to say congratulations”. Then our manager, Phil Warbrick, says he hopes we can keep a relationship with Bahrain. We all clap the Bahrain guy before he leaves. I don’t remember the Bahrain team leaving – we’re just in the zone. It’s quite sad that we don’t get to pay any respect to them.
It dawns on me that I’m emotionally and physically exhausted. Rory’s jumping around and acting an idiot, like he normally does, but everyone else is absolutely spent.
We jump on our bus and start heading back to the Copthorne. There are people everywhere cheering and chanting. We decide to take a detour down Courtenay Place, which is where it goes up a few notches. As we drive past Four Kings Sports Bar, they all come running out and start rocking the bus. I can see faces from the past – Rab Brown, Alan Carville, George Morris and Paul Brockie. We’re literally surrounded from one end of Courtenay Place to the other with people shaking the bus and smashing on the windows. People keep coming from everywhere. It takes us an hour to get down Courtenay Place.
We finally get back to the hotel and go up to the bar, where everyone’s family has come up for a drink. I finally see my family and find out they were sitting right beside where we run out of the tunnel.
The Professional Footballers’ Association has organised a party so we all make our way down and filter in. There are bottles and bottles of champagne. I’d got a match ticket for my next door neighbour, Wayne Smyth (one of the few people to have also been at the All Whites’ World Cup playoff against China in Singapore in 1982), and when I get to this party, he’s somehow managed to get in. He’s pretending to be the doorman and checking people as they come in!
My phone is going out of control. I have to put it away because it’s too much. It’s stopping me from talking to all the people around me.
I end up with Dad, Granddad, a couple of mates and Browny in Red Square Bar until about 5am. It’s getting a bit late and people are getting a bit messy, so I make a run for it. I grab a taxi back to my house because all my family are staying there. We wake up quite early and by 9am we’re back on it.
We decide to have a barbecue, so I go up to the Paparangi dairy and the owner gives me a whole lot of barbecue stuff and won’t let me pay for it. When I’m at the dairy I get a phone call from Newstalk ZB sports host Murray Deaker. I think, “Shit, we’ve made it”, because he’s not a soccer man. This is pretty cool – Deaker’s actually rung me, he wants to talk to me.
I get another phone call to say it’s been arranged to have us in the Wellington Christmas Parade later in the day. I’m pretty well on my way again, so Deanna and her mum try to sort me out. They give me a couple of waters and take me down to the parade. I’m happy as Larry, pulling young kids I know up on to the float with us. Deanna and her mum follow the float on the footpath all the way, making sure I don’t fall off or do anything silly.
After the parade we go into Four Kings for a celebratory drink or two. My great mate, John Brown, is supposed to fly back to Christchurch later that day, but he’s having too much fun and misses his flight. He’s been one of the most influential people in my football career, so it’s pretty special that he’s spent this time with me.
Things get a bit blurry as the day goes on and soon we’re all knackered. We head home and I flake out. It’s been the best 24 hours of my life.